The Toronto Raptors have played 36 games so far in the 2015-16 season, and fans of the North Side have witnessed the good, bad, and the ugly with the team.

The Raptors are currently 5th in the Eastern Conference at 21-15 and have wins over teams like Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Cleveland. The Raptors even had two really strong showings, in losing efforts, against the potentially historic Golden State Warriors --- leaving a feeling that the Raptors are not playing up to their full potential, which is leaving a bad taste in the mouth of the Toronto faithful.

Despite the Raptors good wins, they have also suffered some horrendous losses to New York, Phoenix, Sacramento and who can't forget that fateful night in Indiana when the Raptors built a 21-point lead in the first quarter, only to see that lead evaporate in the same quarter. On one hand, the lack of consistency makes it really hard to judge the team through the first stretch of the season, but on the other hand, one can judge the Raptors on whether or not they can can achieve their goal of bringing the Larry O'Brien trophy across Canadian borders.

While every team’s goal, every year, is to win a championship, Toronto fans just want to see the Raptors get into the second round. Judging from what we have seen here from the team, it is not easy to make a definitive call on whether the second round is a given for the Toronto Raptors. While the positive thinkers will cite that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are all-stars, the team has room to improve on both offensively and defensively.

The detractors will say that the East is surprisingly tough this season, the team has been hilariously inconsistent, and the Raptors offense has taken a serious hit.

Let’s take a look at the negatives

CONS

The East, as previously stated, is not only tight but teams are winning, making the East competitive for a change. Take a look at the standings in the Fan-I graph: 

#    Team    W    L    PCT    GB
1.        Cavaliers
    23    9    .719    0.0    
2.        Bulls
    20    12    .625    3.0    
3.       Heat
    20    13    .606    3.5    
4.      Hawks
    21    14    .600    3.5    
5.        Raptors
    21    15    .583    4.0    
6.        Pacers
    19    14    .576    4.5    
7.        Celtics
    19    15    .559    5.0    
8.        Pistons
    19    16    .543    5.5    
9.        Magic
    19    16    .543    5.5    
10.        Hornets
    17    16    .515    6.5    
11.       Wizards
    15    17    .469    8.0    
12.       Knicks
    16    19    .457    8.5    
13.       Bucks
    14    21    .400    10.5    
14.       Nets
    10    24    .294    14.0    
15.       76ers
    4    33    .108    21.5    

 

The East has made a surprising turnaround this year. A year ago 19-16 so far would be 5th or 6th in the east, now it gets you a “thanks for coming out” 9th place. In fact, while the Wizards are playing below standards at 15-17, usually they would be just fine and would be given time to figure themselves out. That is not the case this season as they sit 11th and need to figure it out quickly but I digress.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the East is that every team is close and competitive. 2.5 games separate 2nd & 8th and 3 games separates 2nd & 10th. My gut says that there is no way that teams like the Pistons, Celtics, and Hornets can sustain this much pressure on the top teams in the East. My brain says that all the teams from 1-10 have either been exactly where we thought they were going to be, or have been trending upward for the last couple of years and it is not surprising to see those teams playing well. Also, 36 games in an 82 game season is typically a pretty good sample size as an indicator for how a season will go.

“How does this relate to the Raptors?” you might ask.

Well this ties into the Raptors problems with consistency. The Raptors are now in a tough conference, for the time being, and need to set themselves apart with a string of wins. No 3-game losing streaks or 6-4 stretches will help the Raptors right now. It sounds crazy but basically in order to give themselves space and secure home court, the Raptors probably need to go 7-3 every 10-game stretch if the East continues to be tough.

The Raptors have yet to do such.

In the last 10 games, the Raptors are 5-5, and what is most frustrating is that 2 of the 5 losses were against inferior opponents; Charlotte and Sacramento.

In all 5 losses the Raptors showed serious lulls on the offensive side of the ball.

For example, the Indiana loss where the raptors had a 21 point lead in the first quarter and let that slip away in the same quarter.

Need another example? Against Sacramento, the Raptors were outscored by Sacramento in the first quarter 37-18. In Fact, whether the Raptors win or lose, The Raptors go on extended stretches where they will literally stop scoring as well as playing defense. These droughts usually occur in the first and/or fourth quarter but, the Raptors are no strangers to having a rough second or third quarter this season.

Why does this happen? Well the easy answer is that the Raptors offense has taken a big hit from last year. The Raptors are 20th in points per game, which is a major turnaround from last season where they were 4th in points per game

There is a prevailing theory that the Raptors offense goes through dry spells that is because during those stretches the Raptors are not moving the ball.

The Raptors this season are a mind-boggling 29th in assists per game. While the Raptors for the last two years have never been an assist driven team, the argument that many basketball pundits have made about the Raptors is that the team is at their best when swinging the rock and drawing fouls.

For the record, "swinging the rock" is much harder than the casual fan would think. Not everyone has three hall of famers and one potential hall of famer like the Spurs do. That being said, the Raptors should pass the ball more because the they're a good jump shooting team and jump shooting teams need open “set” shots. The only way to get open shots in basketball is ball movement.

In the case of DeMar DeRozan, his game relies on isolation ball and foul baiting, which makes him very effective in crunch time. In other words he need to hog the ball sometimes.

In the case of Kyle Lowry, his role is the ball handler. He is effective in using screens to find an open man, get a shot or foul bait; however, there is criticism from the fan base that while both DeRozan and Lowry are effective in isolation and shot creation, the duo need to pass the ball more.

Personally, I think this criticism is ridiculously unwarranted. Both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have shown fantastic court vision in stretches and that is the reason why both are top 50 in assists per game in the NBA this season. 

Experts have commented that in the Raptors stretches of offensive lulls, the ball tends to “stick” in a player’s hands too much and allows opposing defenses to “cheat”. This can be fixed if the ball is moving more, which will force opposing teams to play defense more honest. Again that is a theory that honestly cannot be proved with stats, however, the fact is that Raptors could benefit from more assists per game.

With all of those negatives, the Raptors are still in 5th place in the east and there are positives that one can take from the 36 games this season. 

PROS

The Raptors still have the same core group intact. That core group is DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who are both having all-star like seasons. Lowry is currently averaging 20.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game, also third in the NBA in steals with 2.2 a game. DeRozan’s numbers are just as impressive. DeMar DeRozan is averaging 22.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game. Many people, experts and fans alike, have these two in the top five of the NBA’s best starting backcourt duos today. Some put them higher on the top five list than others, but most agree that they are one of the best backcourts duos. 

Not only is that a fact but the core group of the Raptors are supported by a group of defensive stoppers.

The Raptors are 4th in opponents points per game this year and that could be due to their off-season acquisitions. Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, and Corey Joseph are all quietly having good years.

The Toronto Raptors made a lot of acquisitions this year and so chemistry wise, the team is still figuring each other out. Kyle Lowry admitted as much on Zach Lowe’s podcast, the Lowe Post. Lowry said this in his interview with Lowe,

We’re a team that was put together this year with seven new guys in the rotation. We’re still a team that’s learning each other and trying to get better.
— Kyle Lowry, via raptorshq.com

The podcast you can listen to herehttp://espn.go.com/espnradio/play?id=14460108)

To be completely honest that is true. The Raptors are now just starting to get healthy with DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas coming back, Terrence Ross is now starting to find his top form, James Johnson has a clear defined role on the team, and Corey Joseph is turning into one of the “steals” of the off-season.

Not to mention what Bismack Biyombo is turning into this season, what Luis Scola has done for the team, and that Patrick Patterson is now starting to get out of his slump.

Think about it like this: A fourth place team, with one of the best defences in the league are still getting better and still figuring out chemistry. That can be looked at as an extremely good sign because of two reasons. One, the issue of chemistry with veterans is usually solved, and two, this team has a bunch of players who are hungry and want to win.

 The Raptors are no longer the plucky, happy-go-lucky team with young players. The Raptors are a team of hard working players. A team with the right mix of young talent, prime players, and veterans who are full of experience and can still contribute on the court. Above all the Toronto Raptors are full of players who are hungry and will work tirelessly to be great. If you do not believe me, ask Kyle Lowry how much weight he lost in the off-season or ask DeMar DeRozan if he believes he is a ‘max money’ player.

Need more questions? Ask Terrence Ross if he feels he has something to prove or ask Jonas Valanciunas if he believes he can still be better? 

The Verdict:

 The Raptors are a good team but not good enough to defeat a top tier team --- teams like Cleveland, Atlanta and Indiana (Although I do believe Atlanta and Indiana are a little fraudulent) --- in a 7-game series. I am only confident that the Raptors will get to the second round if they get good seed, or at least a seed that secures home court,  If the Raptors fall below third in the standings, this will most likely mean the raptors will fail to get out of the first round

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